Now Is the Winter of Our Discovery: Tracing History Through DNA

BY Jenny Marder  February 4, 2013 at 2:15 PM EDT

Skull DamageProject osteologist Jo Appleby points out damage to a skull, believed to be that of Richard III, during a news conference in Leicester, central England, on Monday. Photo by Darren Staples/Reuters.

King Richard III, depicted by some as a wicked, Machiavellian murderer and by others as a champion of the common man, was identified on Monday by DNA analysis after his bones were unearthed from a car park in Leicester. This comes 528 years after he died in battle at Bosworth Field at the age of 32. That was in 1485.


He was an intriguing character. Shakespeare’s Richard III was a courageous though savage, power-crazed hunchback, responsible for the death of his brother and two nephews — rivals for the throne. Francis Bacon, on the other hand, wrote that he was “a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people.”

The unearthed skeleton showed signs of scoliosis or some kind of spinal problem, consistent with historical accounts, which often refer to Richard III as the hunchback king. Early this morning, the University of Leicester, which has been leading the project, posted this on their Twitter feed.

The skeleton also showed injuries in his skull and upper back consistent with the wounds that killed him in battle.

But just as fascinating is the way they discovered him — through DNA analysis.

They relied on mitochondrial DNA extracted from the skeleton’s bone material. Mitochondria are structures that exist within cells, but outside of the cell nucleus. They are responsible for energy production, and they contain their own DNA. The mitochondrial DNA gets passed down by mother to daughter or son, and then continues along the maternal line. And unlike nuclear DNA, it is passed from generation to generation with very little change. Because of this, it’s a rich source of information for human ancestry. But it requires an all-female line of descent.

For a good visual, watch this gorgeous instrumental video on mitochondria, created by Harvard University and XVIVO:

For the Richard III investigation, scientists found a descendant to the slain king, a London furniture maker named Michael Ibsen, who donated his DNA. But confirming the link was an arduous process. Professor Kevin Schürer dug through historical documents for evidence that the line of descendants did indeed lead from Richard III to Michael Ibsen, and that it was an unbroken female line. Any break in the female line would have dead-ended the search. From the University of Leicester:

Professor Schürer’s task was to locate documentary evidence (in the National Archives and elsewhere) for every link in the chain connecting Cecily Neville, Duchess of York (1415-1495) to Michael Ibsen, furniture maker (born 1957). Wills, baptism registers, certificates of birth and marriage and even the passenger list for the RMS Mauretania, which carried Joy Brown and her mother to Canada in 1948, together provide inarguable documentary evidence of an unbroken female line of descent.

Schürer also found a second line of descent, but the descendant prefers to remain anonymous, according to the university.

Although the Middle Ages sounds ancient, it’s actually fairly recent when it comes to DNA analysis.

“Mitochondrial DNA of two people 500 years apart — over that short a period of time, it’s probably pretty identical,” said Harold Dibble, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He studies what he calls “deep time,” i.e. Neanderthal DNA.

Final Resting PlaceDibble said he was impressed with the breadth of evidence: the DNA analysis, combined with the radiocarbon dating, the skeleton’s physical characteristics, which showed scoliosis, and the battle wounds, which corresponded to the historical accounts of the king’s death.

“That, to me, is good archaeology,” he said.

By the way, in case you were wondering, Michael Ibsen is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, according to Leicester University. And Harold Dibble is allegedly related to Richard the Lionheart. Or so he’s heard.

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Photo credit: The skeleton of Richard III, which was discovered at the Grey Friars excavation site in Leicester, central England. Photo by University of Leicester via Reuters.

Correction: Michael Ibsen is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Richard III’s mother, Cecily Neville, not of Richard III.